Mexican American Astronaut isn’t Changing Course on Immigration Stand

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 17, 2009

He may have soared a gazillion miles in outer space, but back here on Earth, U.S. astronaut Jose Hernandez has stepped knee-deep in controversy.

Hernandez, the California-born son of Mexican immigrants, is a full-fledged media star in Mexico. Fans here followed his every floating, gravity-free move during his two-week journey in space as he Twittered from the shuttle Discovery and gave live interviews to local TV programs.

After the shuttle returned Friday, Hernandez told Mexican television that he thought the U.S. should legalize the millions of undocumented immigrants living there so that they can work openly because they are important to the American economy.

Officials at NASA flipped. They hastened to announce that Hernandez was speaking for himself and only for himself.

“It all became a big scandal,” Hernandez later told television viewers. “Even the lawyers were speaking to me.”

Hernandez was back this week on Mexican network Televisa’s popular morning chat show, where he has seemingly been a fixture, to update host Carlos Loret de Mola on how he was adapting to life back on Earth.

Loret de Mola asked Hernandez, 47, about the controversy, and the astronaut said he stood by what he had said earlier on the same program, advocating comprehensive immigration reform–a keenly divisive issue in the United States.

“I work for the U.S. government, but as an individual I have a right to my personal opinions,” he said in a video hookup from a Mexican restaurant owned by his wife, Adela, near NASA headquarters in Houston. “Having 12 million undocumented people here means there’s something wrong with the system, and the system needs to be fixed.”

He added that it seemed impractical to try to deport 12 million people. In the earlier conversation, he spoke of circling the globe in 90 minutes and marveling at a world without borders.

Hernandez, whose first language was Spanish, grew up picking cucumbers and tomatoes in the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley. His parents, Salvador and Julia, had migrated from Mexico to Northern California in the 1950s in search of work. They eventually became U.S. citizens and raised four children, including Jose, the youngest.

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After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, Hernandez applied every year for 12 years to enter the space program, finally being chosen in 2004.

Mexicans were over the moon when they learned that someone with such close ties to their country would be reaching such heights. Normally, space travel is not a popular topic here, perhaps because it is such an other-world experience.

Hernandez has tweeted in English and Spanish, with the moniker Astro_Jose. His orbit-trotting on the Discovery mission included a salsa demo and mini-science lessons for viewers. He made taquitos for his fellow fliers and fielded questions from YouTube users.

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